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Monday, June 18, 2012

Bhutanese Cuisine: Rice Rice and More Rice

Rice Rice and More Rice

Trying to learn how to cook (my kitchen in Bhutan)
When I had first arrived to Bumthang, my principal and his family insisted that I have my meals with them for the first several days to ensure that I wouldn’t starve.  I decided that this was a good idea until I learned how to use my rice cooker and curry pan.  If you know me well, the fact that I didn’t know how to use a rice cooker/curry pan is no surprise because I am notoriously known for not being able to cook, even though I sure love to eat.  Additionally, there were no major restaurants in my village that I could easily grab dinner like I was used to doing in America and there were also only a couple of tiny stores that sold a few selected items like potatoes, onions, rice, etc., which I have already mentioned I’m not the best cook.  Thus, I gladly took my principals gracious offer to sample some traditional Bhutanese cuisine at their house for a few days while I got settled into my new home.  However, I didn’t know that this would lead to my first lesson on “how to be Bhutanese” as well as the onset of my love affair with rice.

Jimmy can probably fit inside this bowl

So the first night that I had dinner with my principal and his family, we had rice and some amazing green bean curry that was mixed with tomatoes, onions and cilantro.  As the guest of honor, they waited for me to serve myself first as they all watched me put what I thought was a lot of rice onto my plate (a cup or handful of rice.)  After I was done serving myself, they looked horrified at my plate and asked me to please take some more rice.  I thought, what? How could I possibly eat more rice than what I already have?  I didn’t want to offend anyone so I took one more spoonful.  They continued to stare at me like something was seriously wrong with me. 

Gigantic Rice Cookers
It wasn’t until after they served themselves that I understood why they were telling me to take more rice and looking at me strangely; their entire plates were covered with rice to the point you couldn’t see their plates.  Their plates looked like a gigantic, exploding rice volcano in comparison to my little anthill of rice.  In addition, my proportion of food looked different from their proportion of food.  Their plates were topped with just a few spoonfuls of curry while the majority of the serving was rice.  On the other hand, my plate had a little fist full of rice with the majority of my food being the green bean curry.  I thought, they probably think that I am so weird eating all this curry with hardly any rice.  That’s why they are looking at me with scared and sad eyes.  Holy moly how can anyone eat that much rice? As I struggled to finish my little side of rice, they took seconds and I was now the one staring at them in astonishment. 

Big Pot of Rice 
Then the next morning, I was surprised to discover that for breakfast we were having more rice.  I thought that this was a little strange because I had never eaten rice for breakfast before and I would had never considered rice as a breakfast food.  For the last twenty something years, for breakfast I have been eating fruit, oatmeal, eggs, yogurt, cereal, pancakes, toast, etc. but never rice.  However, I was so grateful for not having to face my kitchen that needed to be unpacked and cleaned, that I ate the rice along with the left over curry from dinner.  I was also so happy to see a fluffy egg on my plate that I ate it in one bite.

After breakfast, I wondered if every Bhutanese household was eating rice for breakfast or if it was just my principal’s and his family’s favorite food.  Then I started to remember how I read that rice was Bhutanese main staple food, but I didn’t know if that meant they ate it for every meal.  I also started to recall being told that Bhutanese people ate “a lot of rice,” but that phrase was too general for my imagination.  I had envisioned “a lot of rice” as a couple cups of rice a day.  Next, I pondered if this meant several cups for every single meal:  breakfast, lunch and dinner?  I was about to learn the answer to that question.

This is a serving of rice for a small child
The answer unfolded when lunchtime came around and I learned that we were having, you guessed it, more rice.  That’s when I realized that Bhutanese people eat several cups of rice for every meal and that “to be Bhutanese, is to love rice.”  However, at the time, I wasn’t so “Bhutanese” yet and I didn’t feel like eating any more rice.  So when my principal’s wife asked me if I wanted to snack on some cereal while we were waiting for lunch to cook I said, “Yes please,” but deep down I was like “Cereal! Oh My God Yes!”  I think that I unconsciously gorged on so much cereal so that I wouldn’t have any room for rice; by the time lunch was ready, I announced that I was too full and could only take a little rice.  It seemed like they were looking at me with suspicious eyes wondering how I could eat so much cereal for lunch instead of rice.

Finally, when dinnertime approached and I saw the huge rice cooker filled with more rice, I was worried because my taste buds were screaming “Nooooooo more rice.”  But of course I wanted to be respectful and I was feeling a little embarrassed that I couldn’t eat so much rice, so I painfully scooped the rice onto my plate as they all watched me while insisting to take more rice.  As I hesitantly scooped the rice onto my plate, a thought popped into my head:  You have to eat all this rice, every single scoop you put on your plate.  Then I started to feel a little nauseas looking at the small pile of rice that covered my plate.  All I can remember is my principal talking away while I was battling not to throw up as I shoveled each spoonful of rice into my mouth.  I kept saying to myself, one more scoop, don’t throw up, pretend it tastes like chocolate, mmm yummy rice, oh no I’m going to throw up…

My little rice cooker!
My friends laugh 
at how small it is 
compared to theirs
At the time, I was struggling eating rice because in America I rarely ate the same thing for more than one day and I only ate rice a few times a month.  As a result, I wasn’t used to eating so much rice over and over again and the thought of continuously eating the same thing made me feel sick.  However, I kept imagining how sad they would be for me if I vomited rice; the food they loved so dearly.  So my desire not to offend anyone helped me finish the meal while I tried to appear like I wasn’t struggling.  This went on for a few weeks whenever I was invited to someone’s house for a meal: me continuously struggling to eat a little mountain of rice.  However, slowly with time I stopped wanting to gag every time I ate a spoonful and so I started to put a few more scoops on my plate than the last time.

Then one day the strangest thing happened; while I was teaching my stomach started to growl and I thought, errr I’m so hungry, I want rice.  And life has never been the same ever since.  In fact, I now crave rice more than any other food and all I want is a big bowl of rice the size of Mount Everest for every meal.  Furthermore, I crave rice so much that I even dream about eating rice in my sleep.  For example, one morning I was dreaming that I was eating a bottomless bowl of rice that made me feel like I was in heaven.  Then, when I woke up, I immediately went straight to my rice cooker while I was still half asleep and started making rice for breakfast.  Wow!  Times have changed!
I love to eat chili on my rice. YUMMY!
Left:  Ema Datshi (Chili and Cheese)
  Right: Ezay

My favorite:  Desi Rice
Furthermore, I have become like a typical Bhutanese person when it comes to eating rice.  Just the thought of rice makes me salivate, especially red rice topped with spoonfuls of ezay/chili (ezay is my best-friend and it deserves its own blog entry).  However, my biggest weakness is desi rice (sweet yellow rice with raisons, saffron and butter), which is served only on special occasions.  I always lose track of how many bowls of desi rice I can eat because it is so delicious.  Nevertheless, I don’t discriminate against any type of rice; I love white rice, rice with maize, long grain rice, etc.  I even take rice for snacks, such as zaw (hard fried rice) in my tea.  My Bhutanese friends and principal laugh at how much rice I can now consume, which is sometimes more than them.  They proudly say that I am now like a Bhutanese person by the way I can feast on rice and eat it with my hands.  I have learned how to roll the rice into tight balls with my fingers as well as my other favorite technique of scrunching it with my fingers into a sloppy ball shape and then dropping it into my mouth.  My friends claim that eating with your hands makes the food taste better.  I personally find it to be fun!

My Favorite: Red Rice
Moreover, my Bhutanese best friend always says that if Bhutanese people don’t eat rice for a meal, then it’s like they haven’t eaten at all.  When she first told me this, I didn’t understand exactly what she meant by that saying.  However, now I know first hand what she means.  For instance, if I eat oatmeal or noodles instead of rice, I am starving a few hours later and it feels like I have skipped a meal.  On the other hand, if I eat rice, my stomach feels satisfied and happy.  In addition, if I don’t have my daily consumption of rice, I feel a little cranky like a baby without a nap.

My serving of rice now with ezay!  
My serving of rice
 when I first moved to Bhutan
Thus, ever since I have moved to Bumthang, rice has become one of my favorite foods.  I often like to reflect on how much I have changed from the first morning I settled into Bumthang when I thought that eating rice for breakfast was bizarre to now I can’t get enough of rice that I dream about it in my sleep.  I also laugh when I remember my taste buds screaming, “no more rice” because now they chant daily, “more rice more rice.”  Lastly, I also like that I came to Bhutan na├»vely not knowing that Bhutanese proudly eat “a lot of rice” for every meal; if I knew this fact before I came to Bhutan, then I wouldn’t have been so surprised, which makes learning fun.  For some strange reason it also makes me appreciate my love affair with rice ten times more.  Yum Yum!


  1. That is a really big pot of rice! I like to eat rice too I been buying jasmine rice and brown rice.Because its a little healthier. Doctor Oz says that barley is even healthier. we haven't tried it yet as a side dish. Enjoy the hot sauce your favorite!Tell Jimmy we said "Happy Birthday ".Take care love mom.

    1. You would really like their red rice because it's texture reminds me of brown rice, but it's much tastier. I don't recall ever having barley rice. Hmmm. Anyways, Little Jimmy say's send us some birthday chocolates haha. Ok that was me!

  2. Eazy is my best friend too. Great post!

  3. Rice is one of the main meal for Bhutanese. Without rice, it isn't a meal.
    Even staying abroad, I am still with Rice and curry. Rice keeps you less hungry and your stomach is stored for more hours.
    Keep eating rice!
    I love Bumthang Cheese. It is one of the expensive cheese and it is delicious :)

    1. Whenever I feel like I'm getting a cold, my friend says eat more rice so that I stay strong. So far it has worked.

      I love Bumthang cheese too, it just looks pretty. I like it better than the swiss cheese. When I first came to Bumthang, I use to put swiss cheese in my curry and little Jimmy use to say that I made weird sticky curry lol. Now I only use the local cheese, because it melts better in curry and my taste buds prefer it.

      Study hard and keep eating rice:-)

  4. Sonam Choden,

    I thought that I would put this in writing: Thanks for teaching me how to eat rice with my hands and always sharing your red rice with me. If it wasn't for you, I probably wouldn't have come to loving rice so much and I would be eating noodles.

    Thanks a Bunch!

  5. Ah....nice post again here....i relish in your ricey-spicy,here sre some Inconvient Truth about Food production and consumption pattern;
    1. Bhutanese consume more rice than what it can produce(domestic production)
    2. Bhutanese importants thousands of tons of rice from India.
    3. A menu without rice is not a meal(FOOD) for Bhutanese.
    4. The riches(Bhutanese) waste tons of foods(rice)--extravagent and lavish!
    5. Nomads in the northern Bhutan stock tonns(bags) of rice enough to last 1--3 years.Some households have the stocked rice of 10 years back!
    6.Rice is the priced meal for the poor and lavish affairs for the Bhutanese.
    7. Rice appetite of the bhutanese will never allow MacDonald's, KFC, Hungry Jack's to enter our Food Industry....

    This is no joke but unless Bhutanese change the eating habits rice will still be the staple, everyday meal for Bhutanese.

    1. Pema,

      These facts are amazing and I don't know how many times I reread them trying to memorize them to tell my family. #5 really surprised me and now I'm intrigued to see these 1-10 years worth of stocked rice. Wow!

      I liked how you mentioned that rice is for the rich and poor. It's just like water; it is essential for all. It seems like rice knows no boundaries in Bhutan because even our wild/domesticated animals like to eat rice lol.

      I have experienced your #2 fact. When I first moved to Bhutan, I unknowingly bought rice imported from India and slowly my taste buds realized that it doesn't quite taste the same as the domesticated rice. The domesticated red rice is my favorite and I don't know how I am going to get it to America lol.

      Your #7 fact also grabbed my attention because my friend and I have had several conversations about what would happen if McDonalds or other fast food chains tried to move into Bhutan's capital. I hope that never happens for many reasons. Rice is such a part of the culture that I can't even imagine what it would be like without it.

      Thanks for these fun facts, it just adds to my love and appreciation for rice. So interesting!

  6. Lol. I like rice too. We got a 50 lb sack of jasmin rice at home. It lasts us hella long!

  7. 50 pounds!!! That is hysterical because every month my friend buys 110lbs of rice for me, her and two kids (our little family lol). 50lbs wouldn't last us two weeks lol. You need to eat more rice.

    Jasmine rice is so good!